While News Operations Supervisor at WAGA-TV in Atlanta I actively promoted safety for technicians, photographers, reporters, and engineers operating in and around television Electronic News Gathering (ENG) vehicles, commonly known as “live trucks.”
People have been seriously injured and killed when their live truck mast came in contact with energized power lines. Lightning is also a significant danger.
My 1997 Radio World (no longer in publication) article, “On Remotes, Look Up and Live” (below), is essentially a compilation of information I compiled from Mark Bell, the risk management department of Georgia Power, the National Lightning Safety Institute, and other sources.
And the best ENG Safety videotape I’ve seen is “Safety Is Good News” from the Salt River Project, an Arizona power utility. To promote safety they are distributing it at no charge to the broadcast industry. Send email to request your own copy. (Important: free to broadcast industry only!) [Note: this is probably no longer available.)
Going out for a remote? Sounds exciting and fun, and it usually is. But if you raise an antenna mast your remote could turn deadly.
As Assistant News Operations Manager for WAGA-TV Atlanta, I am responsible for the operation of our fleet of seven live trucks, each with a 40-foot antenna mast. What I’ve learned to ensure the safety of our live television crews applies as well to radio remotes and radio electronic news gathering (RENG).
The operation of an extendible mast can present life threatening hazards if all due precautions are not taken. These guidelines should help you avoid becoming an accident statistic.
Contact by the mast or antenna with power lines can kill or injure the operator, the support personnel and bystanders as well. Overhead power lines are not insulated. Some have a weather covering and may appear insulated, but are not.
Park in an appropriate location for safe mast operation. All overhead wires should be considered hazardous.
It is not safe to be parked:
Where there are power lines overhead.
On the curb adjacent to utility poles carrying power lines.
Where power lines come within 15 feet of any portion of the mast and antenna in any direction.
On uneven ground where the vehicle is not reasonably level.
Where the mast will not be completely visible as it is extended.
Where your vehicle is a traffic hazard.
Look up and live
Always remember to look above your vehicle for power lines and other obstructions. Tree branches can hide power lines from view, so be on the lookout.
Many states have a High Voltage Safety Act or similar law. Your local electric power utility will be happy to provide you with information applicable to your area. Here in Georgia, the law covers any activity near high voltage lines. If you’re anywhere near a power line the law applies.
Under this law it is a criminal offense to do any work within 10 feet of a power line without first meeting stringent requirements. Also, you are liable if activities in violation the law cause damage to utility facilities or result in injury or damage to property.
It may not be law where you live, but it is a very good idea anyway: Keep away from power lines. Period.
When raising the mast, everyone should be outside the vehicle. Observe the mast carefully until it reaches full extension. If you detect a risk of contact with power lines, immediately shout at the top of your lungs, to alert others to the danger, and run away from the vehicle.
The following safety information from the electric power industry concerns contact with power lines. If by some misfortune your mast does come in contact with a power line, following these procedures can save your life!
Stay calm and stay away. If the vehicle you’re operating contacts a power line, do not panic. Stay where you are unless you are in danger from fire or being struck by a loose power line. You are safe from electrical shock as long as you don’t become a pathway for current to flow to ground.
If you are in the vehicle, and the vehicle is operable, try to move it away from the power line. Warn others not to touch you or the vehicle.
If you must get off a vehicle while it is in contact with a power line, JUMP as far away as you can. Land with both feet together. No part of your body should touch the vehicle and the ground at the same time.
Once you are off the vehicle, realize that the ground may be energized. HOP away from the vehicle, keeping both feet together. This will prevent you from becoming a conductor between two areas of the ground which are charged differently.
An alternative method of traveling over energized ground, advocated by other power companies, is to shuffle, keeping both feet on the ground at all times. Check with the power company in your area and follow their guidelines.
Once you are clear, don’t return to the vehicle until power company representatives tell you it’s safe.
If you are nearby when a vehicle contacts a power line, stay away and warn others to stay away. The best thing you can do to help anyone in the vehicle is to make sure someone calls 911 immediately. Don’t add to the problem by rushing over, because any rescue attempt may place you in danger, too. If you touch someone whose body is conducting current your body will become another link in a deadly chain.
If someone comes in contact with a downed power line or is handling equipment that touches a power line, realize that any rescue attempt places you in danger. The further you stay away from the equipment, and the person, the better your chances of not being injured yourself. If you must rescue a person in contact with a power line, never use your bare hands. Instead, use a dry, non-conductive object to move the person to safety. If you see a line down, stay away. Do not touch it or attempt to move it. Even if it isn’t throwing off sparks it could be energized.
Do not assume the power company already knows about the downed line. Call 911 immediately. The sooner the power company knows about the problem, the quicker they can respond.
Thunderstorms present their own unique set of problems and safety practices. The mast on an ENG unit is a lightning attractor. Lightning is just as hazardous as power lines.
Lightning strikes again
The National Lightning Safety Institute says: For every five seconds time from a lightning strike’s flash to the accompanying thunderclap), lightning is one mile away. Thus, if it takes ten seconds between the flash and clap the lightning is 2 miles away; a flash and clap combination of 15 seconds places lightning three miles away.
At a count of fifteen (3 miles), shut down immediately and seek shelter. Resume work when the thunder storm passes and you can judge the storm to be three miles away in the opposite direction. Avoid solitary tall trees for shelter. Seek a fully-enclosed, all metal vehicle as a safe place. Remember, your remote vehicle with its mast up is not a safe haven. If lightning strikes anywhere close to the vehicle it’s time for an immediate bail-out. Do not stop even to lower the mast. Everyone should get out of the vehicle and far away as fast as possible. If your hair stands on end or you feel tingling sensations, you are in lightning’s electric field. Immediately remove all metal objects and crouch down with feet together and hands on knees.